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Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), "The Progress of Love"

The history of these paintings -- one of the most powerful evocations of love in the history of art -- is linked with the career of the Comtesse du Barry, the last mistress of Louis XV. For a pleasure pavilion she commissioned from the architect Ledoux in 1771, the countess ordered from Fragonard four canvases depicting "the four ages of love." They are the large canvases flanking the fireplace and to the right, on the adjacent south wall. Together they illustrate a love story such as any of us might have known. Beginning on the south wall, they advance from a flirtatious proposal (a young man springs out to offer a girl a rose), to a furtive meeting at the left (the lover scales the wall of a garden), to consummation or marriage on the other side of the fireplace (the girl crowns her lover with roses), to the calm enjoyment of a happy union (the reading of the love letters). Yet, for all their beauty and passion, Madame du Barry soon returned the canvases to the artist and ordered replacements from another. Were the resemblances between the red-coated lover and Louis XV potentially embarrassing? Did the exuberant canvases seem a little old-fashioned amidst the cool neoclassicism of Ledoux's avant-garde pavilion? For whatever reason, Fragonard was left holding onto his creations for another twenty years. Then, adding seven more canvases, he installed the lot in a cousin's villa in southern France.
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